A surplus with no place to go: the dilemma of food aid

Ethiopia has produced a rare grain surplus in one part of the country that is large enough to cover almost half of this year's relief needs of people enduring drought and hunger in the rest of the nation. But international donors have already covered almost all relief needs, and no one is quite sure how the local surplus will be used - or if it will be used at all.

This situation is a classic example of the complexity of blending drought relief with local food production in poor countries. ``This surplus was unforeseen,'' says a visiting Western agricultural specialist working closely with the Ethiopian government.

The 680,000-ton surplus is in corn and sorghum. Among urban dwellers - the Ethiopians most likely to be able to afford to buy the surplus - tastes run more to wheat and teff, a popular local grain.

Additionally, the toll that repeated droughts have taken on cattle and farm production has left people in the rural areas too poor to purchase any of the surplus.

In theory, the surplus grain - grown mostly in western regions of Ethiopia - could be used to feed people in danger of starving in the east and north. But the government says it cannot afford to buy or transport it. And many of the people most in need are in rebel-held territories, to which the government will not allow food shipments.

At the same time, the price the government is paying farmers for their grain is higher than the cost of imported grain. Thus, Ethiopians are encouraged to purchase imported grains.

Western nations make their subsidized surplus grain available so cheaply in poor countries like Ethiopia that it often sends local market prices into a nosedive. In the long run, this creates a ``disincentive to local production,'' says Ingo Loerbroks of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

About a third of the unexpected surplus is slated for a small national grain reserve. About one-third is likely to be sold on the market, the visiting Western expert says. Much of the rest may ``eventually rot,'' according to a United States official.

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